GAME OF THRONES 7x04

"The Spoils of War"

I'm going to approach "The Spoils of War" from a slightly different tack than I usually take. After all, it's a short episode: from the end of the opening credits to the beginning of the end credits, "The Spoils of War" runs a slim 43 minutes, and a full 13 of those are focused on Dany's devastating attack on the Lannister wagon train.

Don't get me wrong: that sequence was glorious. For the second time (after Season Five's "Hardhome"), Benioff and Weiss have dropped a massive, show-stopping battle scene with no advance warning. (The trailer for this episode barely even hinted there would be an attack, let alone anything of this scope and scale.) I personally love the fact that Game of Thrones is a "talky" fantasy series—more concerned with politics and personalities than action—but "The Spoils of War" joins "Blackwater," "The Watchers on the Wall," "Hardhome," and "Battle of the Bastards" in proving that this show can bring the full-scale destruction when it wants to.

But these epic battle scenes—though there are interesting things happening within them—don't leave me with a lot to analyze. My regular readers know I like to unpack the theme of an episode, but, to be honest, I'm not 100 percent sure there is a consistent throughline connecting all of the various storylines this week.

For the record, there are a couple of common threads, if we really wanted to weave them together into something coherent. The first is the question of transformation. (Sansa is horrified at what Arya has become; Arya and Meera are both horrified at what Bran has become; Jon is horrified at what Theon has become; and Tyrion—and the whole world—may soon be horrified at what Dany has become; et cetera...) A second running thread is conflicted loyalties. (Dany doubts Tyrion's willingness to really hurt his family, a doubt that seems justified in the final attack; Jon is split between his need for Dany's support and his commitment to keeping the North free; Sansa is jealous when she hears Brienne has sworn to serve both of Catelyn's daughters; Bronn is getting a little tired of the Lannisters never paying their debt to him; Davos jokes about switching sides between Jon and Dany; et cetera...)

But either of those discussions would be rather thin, and neither subject is exactly an unexplored theme in Game of Thrones. So—though we'll touch on some of this stuff as we go—let's not go out of our way this week to tie a big thematic bow around "The Spoils of War."

Instead, to discuss this excellent episode full of bone-shaking action, I've decided to talk about...people's faces.

You're skeptical, I'm sure, but bear with me. All season long I've been thinking about how well we know these characters by now, and how well Benioff and Weiss (and their talented stable of directors) are able to rely on our recognition of subtext and exploit our deep intimacy with these characters. It's a trick that only long-running series can do, and few do it as well as Game of Thrones. Few can do it as well, because few shows have established characters with the history, psychological depth, and emotional complexity of these. (That's the plus-side of this being a show about people, not events: as I've long argued, the true stakes being played for in Game of Thrones are not kingdoms or thrones or power, but the souls of the characters. The characters themselves are the real battlefields on which all the wars are fought, and we know the topography of that real estate very well by now.)

And throughout "The Spoils of War" I kept noticing these extraordinary moments—some very quiet, some very loud—where everything important was playing out, unspoken, on a character's face.

"Everyone who knew his face is dead."

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

It is remarkable, in fact—and a hallmark of Game of Thrones at its best—just how much moving character work is accomplished in an episode that spends nearly a third of its running time blowing shit up.

And few things could be more moving than the homecoming of Arya Stark. Arya has not seen Winterfell since the second episode of Game of Thrones, and she has not laid eyes on another member of her family since she watched her father die in "Baelor." She has come close: Yoren was going to take her to Jon; the Brotherhood without Banners was going to take her to her grandfather; the Hound was going to take her to her aunt; Brienne wanted to take her to find her sister. But none of these panned out; every moment of hope just led to another disappointment.

In "The Rains of Castamere" she came cruelly close: sitting just across the river from The Twins, where her mother and oldest brother were, she stared at that castle then as she stares at this one now. "Don't worry, they're still there," the Hound said, observing her.

Arya Stark in GOT 3x09 - The Rains of Castamere

"You check every five minutes like you're afraid they're gonna move...You're almost there and you're afraid you won't make it. The closer you get, the worse the fear gets. No point in trying to hide behind that face. I know fear when I see it."

There is no one with her now to say the exact same thing—no one but us. Arya long ago gave up on the kindness and promises of strangers, and she long ago gave up on the hope that she would ever see her family or her home again. More than any of our protagonists, Arya's journey has been a solitary one, her entire arc teaching her to rely on no one but herself. Now, she stands before the towers of her childhood home scarcely believing—scarcely even remembering—that there is or ever was any other way to live.

Don't worry, we want to say to her, as the Hound did. They're still there.

Arya's entrance to the castle is a funny callback to the scene in Season One's "The Wolf and the Lion," when two guards at the Red Keep mistook her for a beggar boy and refused to admit her. "I live here," she said then, and she says the same thing now. "I'm Arya Stark, and this is my home." But things have changed: she asks them to summon someone who would know her face, but Jon is in Dragonstone, and Ser Rodrick and Maester Luwin both died a long time ago. Only "Lady Stark" is in residence. "Which Lady Stark?" Arya asks, and it's a fair question: for all she knows one of her brothers has married, and she may even have a sliver of hope that her mother could somehow still be alive.

Arya Comes Home in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

"The Spoils of War" gives Arya a long moment of silent reflection and acclimation. She sits alone on a cart, and her eyes move around the courtyard of Winterfell, so familiar to her once, and so strange to her now. People are milling about, everything is as it used to be, but nothing is the same. Her brothers are not there, training in the yard and teasing each other. Her parents are not there, watching down over everything lovingly from the balcony where we first saw them.

Arya has come home, but things are different: everyone who knew her face is dead, and the Stark banners hanging from the walls are dirty and worn. Arya has come home, but she is different: she has transformed into so many new people since she left here, and she has seen and done and been through so much. She has been Arry the Orphan Boy, and Tywin's cupbearer, and the Hound's daughter, and Lana the Oyster Girl, and Mercy the Theater Fan, and Meryn Trant's whore, and Walder Frey's servant, and Walder Frey himself. She has been No One, for so long, that it must seem appropriate that no one in Winterfell recognizes her now.

Arya and Sansa in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

And so she goes to find the people who once knew her: she goes to the family crypt. (She has not forgotten the old ways: as King Robert insisted, back in the pilot, the first thing to do after a long journey is pay your respects to the dead.) And it is there her sister finds her, for Sansa knew that was where she would go.

This scene is sweet, restrained, and perfectly pitched. It is slightly awkward, as it would be: Arya and Sansa never quite got along, and now they have each changed so much, but also become so much more themselves. ("It suits you, 'Lady Stark,'" Arya observes, for Sansa was always the lady, proper and poised, while Arya was running off to fight and train with the boys. They have each become the people they were always destined to be.) They are guarded: they have both needed to be guarded for a long time, hesitant to trust, cautious of vulnerability, reluctant to care. (Sansa seems to acknowledge her own measured response in predicting Jon's more enthusiastic one: "I hope he comes home soon," she says. "I remember how happy he was to see me. When he sees you his heart will probably stop.")

But there is a gradual thawing, a remembering of everything they share. They agree their father's statue doesn't look like him. "Everyone who knew his face is dead," Sansa says. "We're not," Arya points out. (Actually, the statue does look like him. But Robert didn't think the statue of Lyanna looked like her, either. Nothing made of stone can match memories of a flesh-and-blood loved one.) Arya and Sansa do not share much of their journeys, beyond acknowledging that neither of their stories has been very pleasant. "But our stories aren't over yet," Arya says: despite everything that has happened, and despite every way in which they've changed, they are still sisters, still Starks, still alive and here in their family home. Their first hug was stiff—Arya looked like she was just enduring it—but now she hugs her sister, fiercely, and with real affection.

Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

There are other, minutely delicate things happening here on the character's faces. I particularly like the moment when Arya explains about her list of people she's going to kill. Sansa looks at her as if not certain whether to believe her, and then laughs nervously. Arya stares at her sister in return, and then laughs herself. They are both laughing at the same thing, but for completely different reasons: Sansa because she thinks it's a joke, Arya because she knows it's not. (And I think in Arya's laughter there is an affectionate recognition of the fact that, despite everything, her older sister is still an innocent, still naïvely thinking happy thoughts about the people she loves. Sansa hasn't changed that much.)

But their little brother has. "Arya, Bran's home, too," Sansa says, and Arya's brief expression of joy and surprise falls away when she sees the look on Sansa's face.

"I remember what it felt like to be Brandon Stark."

Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

Brandon Stark's face is a expressionless, unreadable mask: there is no joy, no pain, no humor, no hope or fear. He is not happy to be home, he was not happy to see Sansa, he is not happy to see Arya, and he is not sad to see Meera leave. He says the words—he acknowledges Arya's return, and he thanks Meera for her service—but there is absolutely no emotion behind them. Whereas we can see Arya remembering her entire childhood as she sits in the courtyard of Winterfell, we see no sign that Bran has any connection to the place, or to the child who once scampered nimbly up and down the castle walls.

Arya has changed, but—however much she may doubt it—she is still Arya. But Bran admits he is no longer Bran. "I'm not really, not anymore" he says to Meera. "I remember what it felt like to be Brandon Stark, but I remember so much else now." There is, it seems, nothing human left in him. "You died in that cave," Meera realizes, and leaves him without another word.

I find the evolution of Brandon Stark interesting for the purposes of our discussion this week, since he's the exception that proves the rule. What I'm trying to explore here is how six previous seasons of development inform every scene now, to the point where we can almost read a character's mind without the script having to spell anything out for us. But Brandon Stark was never well developed as a character. I have some fond and sympathetic memories of him—like his hysterical tears when Theon killed Ser Rodrik—but they are few, and shallow. Since at least the moment he left Winterfell with Hodor, Rickon, and Osha—remember them?—Bran has been much more of a plot device than a character.

And now Bran is only a plot device: the human thing called Brandon Stark is effectively gone, and some vague, distant, all-knowing entity called The Three-Eyed Raven has been left in his place. He's a rolling exposition-machine, probably existing at this point in the story only to tell Jon the secret of his birth, and perhaps to provide a link to whatever mystical endgame George R. R. Martin might have in store for the series as a whole. What Benioff and Weiss are doing with him now almost seems like an acknowledgement of their own failures: Bran never really came alive as a character, and now he doesn't really exist at all.

(Imagine—by way of contrast—if Arya showed up as this cold, detached zombie. We would mourn the loss of her personality as if it were her death, or as a fate worse than death. But I somehow doubt there are too many people who will mourn the loss of Brandon Stark.)

"You kept your vow."

Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

Now let's talk about the exchange of looks that surround Brienne's fight with Arya: there is a lot of stuff going on here, and very little of it is articulated.

First, there's the part that is spoken aloud—though it needn't be. "Catelyn Stark would be proud of you," Podrick says, when Brienne first spots Arya. "You kept your vow." It's an unnecessary bit of hand-holding on the part of Benioff and Weiss—though worth it for Brienne's quiet "Thank you, Podrick"—for we can read everything we need to know about this moment on Gwendoline Christie's face.

It was way back in Season Two that Brienne pledged her fealty to Catelyn Stark. ("I could serve you, if you'll have me," she said. "You have courage—not battle courage, perhaps, but...I don't know...a woman's kind of courage.") It was Brienne whom Catelyn entrusted to return Jaime to Kings Landing, hoping to trade the Kingslayer for her daughters' lives. But that didn't work: the Lannisters never had Arya, and, by the time Brienne and Jaime arrived in Kings Landing, Catelyn was dead and Sansa was married to Tyrion Lannister.

Brienne had failed: she'd failed to save Cat, and she'd failed to keep Cat's daughters safe. She failed again when she came across Arya and The Hound at the end of Season Four: she beat the Hound, but Arya eluded her, rejecting her offer of assistance. Sansa rejected her protection too, at first, when Brienne came across her and Littlefinger in Season Five: she might have saved Sansa from Ramsay Snow, but she failed, and she failed yet again when her pursuit of vengeance against Stannis caused her to miss the signal to rescue Sansa in "Mother's Mercy." It was only after Sansa escaped Winterfell by herself that Brienne was able to convince Sansa to accept her service, pledging herself to the daughter as she had once pledged herself to the mother.

Very little of this was Brienne's fault, but—as Podrick says here—she is too hard on herself. She has been blaming herself for failing Catelyn for years, and only now—as she watches Sansa, Arya, and Bran cross the courtyard of Winterfell—does she feel her obligation is finally repaid.

Arya duels Brienne in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

When Arya and Brienne first met, I discussed the fact that they were, in many ways, kindred spirits. They bonded, briefly, over the fact that both their swords had names, and how their fathers had told them that "fighting was for boys." Each of them had chosen to fight anyway, staying true to themselves and refusing to be shoved into any of the ill-fitting roles traditionally offered to women in Westeros. Brienne no doubt saw herself in this scrappy little fighter, and Arya got a glimpse of the person she might have been—a female knight, in all but title—if her life had turned out differently.

I also said at the time that this encounter—and the battle between Brienne of Tarth and Sandor Clegane—was a fight for the soul of Arya Stark. That seems even clearer in retrospect: Brienne (literally and morally) was a representative of the Starks: Arya could have gone with Brienne, and learned knightly honor from a person with values much like those of her parents. Instead, at the end of that episode, she turned her back on the person she had been, sailed for Bravos, and trained as an assassin under the Faceless Men. That was the moment Arya turned darker: she became a more formidable fighter (as she proves now, out-dueling Brienne with ease), but she also became the sort of person who could hack Meryn Trant to death, serve Walder Frey his sons in a pie, and slaughter an entire family at a feast.

So there is a world of emotional and thematic significance churning away beneath this friendly duel. Coming home is a reckoning, a confrontation with the person you once were and the choices you have made: Arya, as she sat in the courtyard, must have wondered if she could still be Arya Stark. (As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, this was the subtext of her encounter with Nymeria as well.) It is interesting that Arya looked more like a Stark when she first rode into Winterfell, but now she emerges neat and sleek and poised like a Bravosi water-dancer. She still likes Brienne: their affinity is clear, and she is flattering to Brienne about her victory over the Hound. But she also has something to prove: she once had a choice between what Brienne could teach her and what the Faceless Men could teach her, and she needs to know if she made the right decision. It's also a declaration of intent, and a showy reaffirmation of her identity: she has come home, but she has not—will not—transform back into the old Arya Stark. She has changed, and she needs everyone—including herself—to know it.

"Who taught you how to do that?" Brienne asks her, when the duel is over. "No one," Arya replies. It is a double-edged reply: a reference to Jaqen H'ghar, of course—who was "no one"—but also a reference to Arya herself, and the solitary, self-reliant path she chose. When they first met, Arya asked Brienne this same question—"Who taught you how to fight?"—and Brienne replied that her father taught her. But Arya is self-invented now: she has come home, but only after being out in the world and learning lessons her father never could, never would, have taught her.

Littlefinger and Sansa in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

And people have definitely noticed. We can skip over the many loaded looks Littlefinger has in this episode—his looks pretty much all mean "How can I use this to my advantage?"—but let's unpack what's going through Sansa's mind as she watches this scene from the balcony.

First, I think, there is an element of sisterly concern and fear. Arya has changed, and by now Sansa has realized that all of her little sister's jokes about a "list" were not jokes at all. Two of Sansa's siblings have come home, and she barely recognizes either of them: Bran has become this coldly distant soothsayer, and Arya has been transformed into this fierce, ruthless assassin. (How long will it be before someone thinks to ask whether Arya stopped off at The Twins before making her way home?) Sansa, as we've discussed before, has a lot of very understandable trust issues, and the discovery that her sister is a deadly assassin could throw some cold water on the warm sisterly reunion.

Second (and related), there is jealousy, working on a couple of different levels. Sansa has already been dealing with resentment towards Jon (who was promoted to head of House Stark, despite not actually being a Stark). Jon's leaving her in charge of the North had smoothed Sansa's feathers a bit, but now there's a new Lady Stark at Winterfell.

"You swore to serve both my mother's daughters, didn't you?" Arya says to Brienne. As I discussed in "The Red Woman," Brienne's joining Sansa was a big thing: Sansa had never had any power, but that was the moment when she stepped into the role of leadership, and left childhood behind to claim Catelyn's maternal, adult role. Now, the symbolism of that moment is undermined a bit by her discovery that it's a role she has to share with Arya, just as she has to share leadership of the House, and of the North, with Jon.

And I think there's an even deeper level of insecurity plaguing Sansa here: the knowledge—the fear?—that Arya was always everyone's favorite. Think again about what she says to Arya, about Jon: "I remember how happy he was to see me. When he sees you his heart will probably stop." (Meaning: Jon will be happier to see you than he ever was to see me.) And didn't Sansa always secretly know that Arya was their father's favorite? (As Cersei said last week, parents aren't supposed to have favorites, of course, but they do: "we love who we love.") If Brienne now represents, as I've suggested, a symbolic link to Ned and Catelyn, then there is a sad poignancy in Sansa's exclusion from the scene playing out below her.

Exchange of Looks in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

All of this is there. (Littlefinger, watching, sees and understands all of it, and is already figuring out how he can use it strengthen his influence on Sansa.) But exactly none of it is discussed. It all plays out as subtext, readable on the faces of the characters. Watch, for example, the very end of this scene again, and note the exchange of looks: Arya and Brienne exchange smiles; Sansa is looking down, simmering; Brienne looks up and sees Sansa watching, and her own smile disappears in concern; Sansa spares just a quick glance at Littlefinger, and then leaves; Arya looks up and sees Littlefinger staring at her, and the two exchange rueful gazes. There has been a huge amount of character work done here—drawing deeply on the past, and laying seeds for the future—and all of it was accomplished without an overt word, through the efficiency of a two-minute fight scene.

"I've noticed you staring at her good heart."

Jon and Dany in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

Now, let's skip on over to Dragonstone—just briefly, and on a much lighter note—before venturing forth to the main event at Highgarden.

In terms of our usual discussion about the themes of Game of Thrones as a whole, the important thing that happens between Jon and Dany this week is the discovery of the cave, and their discussion (once again) about how they must stand together against the White Walkers as the First Men and the Children of the Forest once did. It's a lovely scene—and a gorgeous set—and there are some nice moments within it. (Dany's question to Jon about his people—"Isn't their survival more important than your pride?"—is the exact same question Jon asked Mance Rayder back in Season Five's "The Wars to Come." Jon has been arguing forever that everyone needs to put their petty political concerns aside for the good of all humanity: is he willing to do the same?)

But these are themes we've discussed many times before, so let's skip 'em this week. In terms of unspoken subtext, what I would describe as happening this week is that Jon and Dany go on their first date. (Jon is such a romantic, he always takes his women to caves.)

I haven't yet discussed the possibility of a hook-up between Jon and Dany, in part because it skeeves me out a little. (She is, let us not forget, his aunt.) And this is the first week that the show has really begun to hint that that's where this is going. (Though there's no denying that, when Jon first laid eyes on her last week, the stunned look on his face probably had very little to do with her impressively uncomfortable throne.)

Dany in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

And though I'm not sure Clarke and Harington have a lot of chemistry yet, their intimate, mood-lit tour of the caves has a definite undercurrent: the whispering voices, the lingering looks, the way he gently takes her arm to show her his etchings. When she moves in close to him near the end of the scene, it almost seems like a prelude to a kiss—but really it's just an invitation to bend the knee. (And not in the fun way he did for Ygritte.)

And Davos calls Jon out on it this week, after Jon and Dany have had their subterranean meeting of the minds. "I think she has a good heart," Jon says. "A good heart?" Davos chuckles. "I've noticed you staring at her good heart." Joyless Jon demurs—he has no time to think about such things—but the seed has been planted. (The sexual theme has actually already been planted by Dany and Missandei's brief conversation about Grey Worm; now, Jon and Davos's subsequent questioning of Missandei—in this context—has an element of high-school about it: hitting up the best friend of the girl you're interested in for inside information.)

From a plot perspective—if we can ignore the incest problem—Dany and Jon getting together is a logical solution to their conundrum: as Dany told Daario last season, "the best way to make alliances is with marriage." And certainly it would be a poetic final verse for A Song of Ice and Fire, to bring ice and fire together in this way, and to synthesize a new family from the two greatest reformers in Westeros. And I actually like the indirect way Benioff and Weiss are coming at it here: again, there is very little overt discussion—just Davos's teasing, really—but the show has made a leap towards bringing these two characters together.

Before I leave this section, my obsession with the stories playing out on people's faces this week requires me to insert just one more screenshot, this one used for darkly comedic purposes: it's the moment when Dany learns about the "victory" at Casterly Rock. "That's very good to hear," she says. "Isn't it?" But then the look on the faces of Tyrion and Varys tell her everything she needs to know about that.

Tyrion and Varys in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

But then this development circles back to the connection that has now been established between Jon and Dany: their bonding in the cave evidently did mean something to her, because it is Jon she turns to for advice now. (Granted, she's none too happy with any of her other advisors at the moment.) And Jon has come to a better understanding of her, as well, from talking to her, and from talking—as Tyrion advised him to do last week—to the people she set free. His little speech here touches on another of the old familiar themes, and the one that is perhaps most important to the development of Dany as a character: does she just want power, or does she actually want to be a new kind of leader?

"The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that is different from the shit one they've always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you're not different: you're just more of the same."

She gave him good advice in the cave—reflecting his own sentiments back at him—and now he similarly reminds her of who she wants to be, and what she believes in. And it works—at least a little. She doesn't go off to burn King's Landing to the ground, as she momentarily wanted to do: she has a more proportional (if almost equally terrifying) response in mind.

"You fucking idiot."

Dany and Drogon in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

What is there to say about the final extended scene in "The Spoils of War?" It's as well-executed a battle scene as Game of Thrones has provided: director Matt Shakman is making his Thrones debut here—he's back next week for "Eastwatch"—and it's an unquestioned triumph. The beats of it all work—it's an exciting and unbearably suspenseful bit of visual storytelling, eschewing some of the messiness and chaos that have cluttered previous action-heavy scenes—and it's also absolutely beautiful. (Shakman and longtime GOT cinematographer Robert McLachlan achieve so many gorgeously framed and lit shots that I had to resist the urge to make this post nothing but a series of screenshots.) In my non-Game of Thrones reviewing I have seen all the big summer movies this season, and I'd put this sequence up against just about any of the big budget, action-heavy blockbusters I've caught in theaters.

But what really impresses me about it is the emotional content. It's the running of a complicated, almost agonizing emotional gauntlet. Team Daenerys has been getting kicked in the teeth ever since it arrived on the shores of Westeros, and we are ready to see Dany kick some serious ass in return. The sound of approaching hooves is thrilling when we hear them: we know that a Dothraki horde is about to be let loose on the smug Lannister army, and seeing them rise over the horizon—the entire horizon—is thrilling.

But it's the sound of roars—and the looks on Jamie and Bronn's faces, right after Jaime has said "We can take them"—that really kick this episode into glorious overdrive.

Jaime and Bronn in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

That's right: dragons, bitches. I confess, ever since "And Now His Watch is Ended," I get goosebumps at the sound of Dany saying just one little word: "Dracarys." And I'm ashamed to admit that it was hard not to whoop in excitement when Drogon began lighting shit up. 

But Game of Thrones never makes it that easy, or lets our ethical conscience off the hook. Most of us are pretty solidly on the side of Team Daenerys in her war against Team Cersei, but this scene is horrifying. There is nothing admirable about Daenerys Stormborn here: there is barely anything human about her. She is pure destruction, a demon come down from on high to rain a purging fire on humanity.

Let me put it another way: if we had no context for these characters—if we were coming into Game of Thrones cold with this scene—we would be unconditionally on the side of the poor bastards in the red uniforms who are burning alive with no defense against this atrocity. In one scene, "The Spoils of War" not only restores the balance of power between Dany and Cersei, but it does something almost impossible: it makes the Lannisters the sympathetic underdogs. (And, strategically, it's hard to see how this will do anything but rally any undecided houses in Westeros against Dany: she's playing right into Cersei's messaging about the return of the Mad King's reign of terror.)

As far as our reactions go, there are various factors contributing to our unease. One of these is that the show went out of its way to humanize Lannister red-shirts just a couple of episodes ago, in "Stormborn." Arya was just as justifiably hellbent on killing Lannisters as Dany is now, until she sat down with a few of them and discovered that they're actually people. I've been arguing for a while that this kind of empathetic connection is the true lesson of Game of Thrones as a whole, and by this point we've learned it too well to mindlessly celebrate the kind of wholesale roasting of human beings that Dany unleashes here. It is warfare—it is not attacking civilians, as Dany might have done—but there is still nothing honorable about a one-sided slaughter.

So we begin this scene in triumphant anticipation, but we grow steadily more disturbed and uneasy as it proceeds. And another reason for our ambivalent feelings is that she isn't just attacking anonymous Lannisters: she's also attacking Jaime and Bronn, who we know very well, and for whom most of us probably have a fair amount of affection. (I love Bronn, even though he's absolutely amoral. And I have a strange fondness for Jaime, and still—as I said last week—hold out hope for his redemption.)

Tyrion Lannister in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

In short, we are in the same position as Tyrion Lannister, Hand of the Dragon Queen: we're on your side, Dany, but Jesus: do you have to be so scary? It is on Tyrion's face that both the moral ambiguity and the emotional concerns of this battle play out.

Like Sansa earlier, he's just watching from above, and barely says a word, but there's a lot going on behind his dumbstruck face. First, there's the awareness that this is, to some extent, his fault: it was his poor strategy—and his lack of foresight— that led to the sacking of Highgarden in the first place, and the necessity for this retaliation. The anger Dany is taking out on the Lannisters now is, to some extent, anger at him. 

Second, let's be honest: Tyrion must be wondering at this point if he picked the right side. He has seen Dany and her children in action before—when they attacked the slavers' fleet in "The Battle of the Bastards"—but that was nothing compared to this. (That was also another instance in which he had to talk her out of murdering thousands of civilians, saying to her more or less exactly what Jon says to her here: "You're talking about destroying cities, it's not entirely different.") There, Dany burned a couple of ships, and then gave her opponents the option to surrender. Here, she shows no such restraint, and Tyrion—who has advised her repeatedly not to be "Queen of the Ashes"—must be wondering if he's helping deliver the land of his birth to a monster. "Your people can't fight," one of the Dothraki comments, and Tyrion is realizing that there's nothing that could stop Dany if she decided to burn the world.

(The music reinforces this: Dany's ass-kicking theme—the same one we heard in "And Now His Watch is Ended"—has dominated the soundtrack during this battle, but slow, subtle, deeply disturbing notes of "The Rains of Castamere" creep in as both Jaime and Tyrion take in the devastation on the ground.)

And finally, of course, there is the personal level on which Tyrion watches this battle—which, as I've argued all season, is the level that really matters. Tyrion is at war against House Lannister, but Tyrion still loves his brother. He can't help that, and he shouldn't help that: it's one of the things that prevents him from being a monster like Cersei or Tywin. Dany wondered earlier if Tyrion's heart was really in hurting his family, and it isn't, entirely. "Run, you idiot," he mutters helplessly, when he sees Jaime approaching Dany and Drogon. Then, when Jaime charges them—hoping to end the war in one blow—all Tyrion can say is, "You fucking idiot."

Jaime Lannister in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

As it was in the first great battle episode, "Blackwater," it is almost impossible to know which side to root for here. And that's the point: it's seeing "sides" in the first place that gets us into trouble. Game of Thrones doesn't give us sides: it gives us people, individuals, all of whom we know intimately, and all of whom have qualities both good and bad. We can't root for Jaime to kill Dany: we know Dany. And we can't root for Drogon to turn Jaime to ash: we know him too.

And what do we know? What is passing through his mind, and therefore passing through ours, as we see him stare at the devastation around him? We know that he has something to prove, this once legendary fighter now reduced to being saved by "Dickon" [snigger] Tarly. We know that he is not entirely bad. (He has reminded us of this earlier, when he refused Randyll Tarly's request to start flogging the wagon train's stragglers.) Most importantly, we know that, for all his faults, Jaime Lannister was a hero once. He saved the entire population of King's Landing, and what he saved them from was this: exactly this. If he were Sandor Clegane, this fiery hell around him could not be any more of a perfect, personal nightmare.

Aerys Targaryen wanted to burn everyone, and Jaime stopped him, by stabbing him in the back. Jaime has paid for that decision ever since—his reputation shattered, his honor forsaken, his name forever attached to the shameful label "Kingslayer"—but it was the right thing to do, and the only thing that really lets him live with himself. And we know that is what is going through his mind—though not a word of it is spoken—as he decides to do it again: after only a moment's hesitation, he charges forward to stab Daenerys in the back, as he once did her father; after all, as far as he can tell, she wants to burn everyone too.

He may be on the wrong "side" of this war, and he is, arguably, a fucking idiot. But give the man his due: taking everything into context, remembering everything we know about him that goes unspoken here, he's also a fucking hero.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • OK, let's get this out of the way: Jaime is not dead. (I was amazed at how many people on Twitter seemed to be mourning him. Y'all saw what I saw, right?) It would be a nice return to form for Game of Thrones to kill a major character early like that, but if it were going to happen we would have seen him lit up, or Drogon would have bitten him in two. (He would not have died after a last-minute tackle from someone—Bronn? Dickon?—sent him flying into the water.)
  • On the other hand, whoever that was who saved Jaime—Bronn? Dickon?—might in fact be dead.
  • Speaking of Dickon, he described his first experience of battle, at Highgarden, thusly: "I didn't expect it to smell like that." One does not suspect that Dickon's second battle smells any better.
  • I gave Bronn short-shrift, but he was epic this week: his ride across the burning field to man the ballista—I guess we're calling it a "scorpion"—was legendary. (And his felicity with a sarcastic one-liner remains unsurpassed: "Yes, I'm sure Queen Cersei's reign will be quiet and peaceful.") But if he's still alive, I wouldn't be surprised to see him switch sides: he's none too happy with the fact that Jaime has been promising him a castle for more than two seasons now.
  • I skipped over Cersei's brief scene this week with Tycho, but it's notable for a few lines. "My only venture at this moment is reestablishing control over this continent and every person on it," pretty much sums up Cersei in a nutshell. And Tycho's description of himself is basically boilerplate text for a Game of Thrones villain: "I am merely an instrument of the institution I represent. And its wellbeing is a matter of arithmetic, not sentiment." And what "things" is Cersei hoping the Golden Company in Essos will "recover" for her?
  • And I skipped over Jon's reunion with Theon, though it was another nice scene where basically no words were required: Jon's face was basically all anger, but there was a complexly desperate combination of emotions playing out on Theon's. (I've always disliked Theon, but Alfie Allen is really very good. He tries to casually greet Jon as if everything is okay between them, and then the whipped-dog look of his perpetual, inescapable shame crushes down on him.)
  • I also skipped over Littlefinger and Bran. (I've grown bored with Littlefinger—he has one mode, and one expression—and I've always been bored with Bran.) But Bran's quoting of "chaos is a ladder" was a nice callback to one of my Top Five GOT episodes, "The Climb."
  • One of the reasons Bran is going to continue to irritate me is that his "I know everything that has ever happened" bullshit is only going to kick in when it's convenient. Why doesn't he know who sent the cutthroat to murder him? Why doesn't he know that Littlefinger was responsible for Ned's death, and just about everything else bad that has ever happened in the Seven Kingdoms? (Or, if he does know, why hasn't he said anything?)
  • It was nice for the show to realize that Needle—though a fine sword—is going to be no use against White Walkers. Arya needed some Valyrian steel on her belt.
  • Pod's really not getting any better at the fighting, is he?
  • Evidence that maybe Dany is getting a little burn-happy like her father: didn't they need all that food?
  • Be honest: in the battle, you were mostly worried about the dragon, weren't you? So let's end this post on just one more screenshot of an emotionally complex face...

Drogon in GOT 7x04 - The Spoils of War

NEXT: Episode 7x05 - "Eastwatch"
PREVIOUS: Episode 7x03 - "The Queen's Justice"
Read all my Game of Thrones pieces here.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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